Government policies further marginalize First Nations with cuts to support programs and organizations


Cuthand: Harper's policies marginalize First Nations


The cutbacks at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations this week are a part of a bigger picture that points to a disturbing trend in Canadian governance as it relates to aboriginal people, and their institutions and communities.

When the Pierre Trudeau government came to power in the late 1960s, grants were made available to aboriginal political organizations. The catchphrase then was "participatory democracy." When the Allan Blakeney government came to power later in Saskatchewan, it provided funding to FSIN for communications and other program areas.

Government policy at the time was to empower disadvantaged groups and support their political organizations. Programs included core funding that paid for the elected leaders and their support staff. Money was also made available for treaty research and treaty interpretation. In hindsight, you could say this was money well spent because it led to the development of an impressive group of First Nations institutions.

The First Nations University of Canada, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, and the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre formed a triumvirate of educational institutions. Economic institutions included the Saskatchewan Indian Equity Foundation and SIGA, which has become an economic engine.

Funding also was provided to the tribal councils, which provided service delivery and development at a local level.

This political funding also gave us the ability to get involved and lobby to have the treaties included in the Constitution. The result was sec. 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982, which states: "The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed."

This groundbreaking provision contained the ammunition we needed to win cases repeatedly in the courts, and today the political landscape for aboriginal people has shifted considerably. In addition, aboriginal people are making a greater contribution to the country through taxation, spending power and participation in government and related institutions.

However, FSIN this year had $2 million cut from its political budget, and the result will be a diminished voice for Saskatchewan's First Nations.

The federal government also has announced drastic cuts this year to funding for specific claims research. In the past, FSIN had used this money to negotiate the treaty land entitlement agreement and pursue specific claims for various First Nations that had their land sold out from under them in the past.

Close to $1 billion has been transferred to Saskatchewan First Nations to purchase land to satisfy a specific claim or outstanding treaty land entitlements. More work remains, but our leaders now lack the resources to continue.

Funding has been eliminated to the following groups since the Harper government came to power: Sisters in Spirit, NAHO, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, The First Nations Statistical Institute and NWAC, Native Women's Association of Canada. Virtually all the aboriginal political organizations experienced funding cuts this year.

We cannot forget the failure of this government to honour the Kelowna Accord that would have injected more than $5 billion into a series of First Nations initiatives, including housing, education health and economic development.

In addition to the cuts to the political organizations, First Nations administrations have seen budget cuts ranging from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. A clause has been inserted in tribal council funding agreements that none of their grant allocations can be used for "advocacy or political activities."

How the Department of Colonial Affairs plans to police this is beyond me. You can't have a group of chiefs in a room without them discussing political issues.

The government views tribal councils only as service providers. In other words, it sees tribal councils replacing the Department of Indian Affairs and becoming the new Indian Agents. The days of participatory democracy are but a memory. The Harper government wants to control the agenda, and any group that provides an independent or contradictory voice is suspect.

In addition to the cutbacks to First Nations organizations, institutions and services, we now have the "Fair Elections Act" that is attacking our democratic rights as Canadians. The removal of the vouching for voters without proper ID could be problematic for First Nations voters.

The problem can be particularly bad for those in remote communities, where many older people don't carry ID. They don't need a driver's licence, and simply remember their treaty number for tax exemption. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has a huge backlog of applications for "status cards," and the delay appears deliberate.

In the past, people without ID could have a community member or relative vouch for them and they would be allowed to vote. Without the proper ID or vouching, many of our people will be denied the right to vote.

This leads me to conclude that the Conservatives have given up on us as supporting them in the next election. They have cut our funding to the bone, and now they are reducing our impact at the ballot box. Is this Harper's war on Indians?